de·​tain di-ˈtān How to pronounce detain (audio)
detained; detaining; detains

transitive verb

: to hold or keep in or as if in custody
detained by the police for questioning
obsolete : to keep back (something due) : withhold
: to restrain especially from proceeding
was detained by a flat tire
detainment noun
Choose the Right Synonym for detain

keep, retain, detain, withhold, reserve mean to hold in one's possession or under one's control.

keep may suggest a holding securely in one's possession, custody, or control.

keep this while I'm gone

retain implies continued keeping, especially against threatened seizure or forced loss.

managed to retain their dignity even in poverty

detain suggests a delay in letting go.

detained them for questioning

withhold implies restraint in letting go or a refusal to let go.

withheld information from the authorities

reserve suggests a keeping in store for future use.

reserve some of your energy for the last mile

delay, retard, slow, slacken, detain mean to cause to be late or behind in movement or progress.

delay implies a holding back, usually by interference, from completion or arrival.

bad weather delayed our arrival

retard suggests reduction of speed without actual stopping.

treatment that retards tumor growth

slow and slacken also imply a reduction of speed, slow often suggesting deliberate intention

she closed her eyes and slowed her breathing

, slacken an easing up or relaxing of power or effort.

on hot days runners slacken their pace

detain implies a holding back beyond a reasonable or appointed time.

unexpected business had detained her

Examples of detain in a Sentence

They were detained by the police for questioning. He claimed he had been illegally detained. Unexpected business had detained her.
Recent Examples on the Web Black was detained in Vladivostok, Russia, earlier this month on charges of criminal misconduct, according to the U.S. Army. Tanya Stukalova, ABC News, 16 May 2024 Smotrich, then 25, was detained and questioned for weeks. Mark Mazzetti Jonathan Davis Anna Diamond David Mason, New York Times, 16 May 2024 See all Example Sentences for detain 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'detain.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English deteynen, from Anglo-French deteign-, stem of detenir, modification of Latin detinēre, from de- + tenēre to hold — more at thin

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of detain was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near detain

Cite this Entry

“Detain.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


de·​tain di-ˈtān How to pronounce detain (audio)
: to hold or keep in or as if in prison
: to prevent from proceeding : stop
was detained by a flat tire
detainment noun

Legal Definition


transitive verb
: to hold or keep in custody or possession
property wrongfully detained
a juvenile detained in a care facility
: to restrain from proceeding
detained the driver and asked to see his license
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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